I remember a day in Taos, New Mexico, it was February 1990, in a week long writing workshop with Natalie Goldberg when a stunning realization hit me. You could write what you wanted to write about by not writing about it. Let me explain.
Natalie said, and I am perhaps paraphrasing badly but it’s close, that she wanted to write a book about zen but in order to write about zen she had to use what she knew, writing, so she wrote the book using writing, and writing practice, to help people understand about zen and zen practice. The book was Writing Down The Bones and became the most successful book about writing to date. I had been a writer and teacher of writing for two decades and was a student of Zen Buddhism. I learned more about Zen reading Bones than from any other book on Buddhism I’d ever read. Natalie made it accessible in her wonderful book, and I learned a lot about writing too.
The point is that when I started this plan of a year long journey of writing about mindfulness I knew that I couldn’t just talk about the basics of the practice 365 days running, but I had to go much deeper. Mindfulness yes, but what did it really mean in my life?
Today I was outside with the dogs. I was waiting for tiny Delilah to do her business — she kind of moseys around, taking her time — and I bent over to pick up a bright red leaf on the ground and stopped short. I laughed out loud. Oh, the sight of me. My old bright blue Crocs and kind of falling down socks. A fashion model I am not. What I am is comfortable, and I don’t just mean because of my feet who have been through constant travails, breaks and surgeries and whatnot, no, it was much more than that.
Looking at my shoes and socks I realized that back when I studied with Natalie I wouldn’t have been comfortable enough in my own skin, fully accepting and loving who I was, secure, happy, and at peace enough to dress like this. I was raised by a mother who insisted that I wear what she referred to as “outfits,” everything matching. By the time I was in my 30’s and much to my mother’s horror I didn’t wear anything that resembled an outfit, but I also wasn’t comfortable enough to dress and be who I was inside.
I was constantly worried what other people thought of me and I was always coming up short in my mind. I felt awkward and embarrassed and shy and was never quite comfortable in the world around me. If your feet hurt, well, that was no excuse for wearing something just because it felt good. My mother would have gone into shock at the sight of the above picture, that I would actually show it to people. As she put it on numerous occasions for various reasons, she hoped that her friends never found out. Today they talk about “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” I grew up with “Don’t tell, don’t show.” You were to pretend that everything was perfectly fine all the time, and dress the part, and have a smile on your face.
I was being sexually abused, I didn’t feel fine, the nuns made my mother take me to a psychiatrist when I was ten years old because they knew something was wrong but they didn’t know what. She took me once, he said I was ‘just a very sensitive child” and I was sent home back to the abuse, but I always looked very nice in very nice clothes and I always had a smile on my face. I had my first nervous breakdown at 18 and that was just the beginning, but I went in one of the best dressed people in the psych ward.
As the years passed I married and had children concurrent with what would be decades of therapy dealing with the abuse. When I finally began to talk about it after my father died the family didn’t want to believe it, everything had “looked” just fine from the outside. I had learned early on to play my part, and in doing so there was such a mind/body split that I might not have recovered at all. I was as if in a thousand pieces held together by thread, fragile as a china teacup. I fell down a lot, broke things and got banged up, and had a terrible struggle with my weight. One day an image took shape in my mind, an understanding of what the issue was. During the years of the abuse it was as if my spirit left my body and went flying ahead while my body bumped about and dragged along on the ground behind me. My brain was fractured as well. And I still lived in a world where looking nice mattered more than how I felt inside. In the end I think that did more harm than the abuse itself.
Enter Buddhism. I have never been a good Buddhist, and it has never been a “religion” to me but the practices of meditation and mindfulness saved my life. When I sat down on the mat to meditate something happened that I wouldn’t realize for 3 more decades, it was the beginning of re-entering my physical body. It didn’t happen overnight, it has never happened completely, but a lessening of pain is an enormous relief for someone who wasn’t sure there would ever be any kind of relief possible. As my practice grew I started to feel things, to experience things that I didn’t even know how to name, and the most startling thing of all was the beginning of acceptance and love of who I was, just as I was, that I was good enough, that I was okay.
Over time I opened up more and more to the truth of who I was and it was not going to be an easy journey. I am bi polar, I struggle with clinical depression, anxiety, agoraphobia, my weight, and a handful of other things, but I have come to fully accept all of these things. With decades of therapy and medication I am able to function in the world, albeit in a rather unusual way. My retreat from the world was something that happened gradually over time but now I realize that somewhere inside of me I was always searching for a place, a way of living where I could feel safe, and fully live out all that I am, and there are so many things that are whole and wonderful and beautiful right alongside all the rest.
The practice of mindfulness helped me to slow down, to sit quietly and feel my feelings, to embrace everything, just as it is. I no longer saw just the problems and all of the broken parts, up from the ashes of my earlier life, like the Phoenix rising, rose the gentle woman that I am, a woman who is loving, and kind, who is compassionate, a good teacher, a writer, an artist, a healer, and a spiritual guide, all of these things grew out of the fertile soil watered by my tears and the compost of an old life, dismantled, broken down, and left under the leaves, and twigs, and other discarded material and now I am growing gardens everywhere, literally and metaphorically, I am tending the soil and growing my future supported by all that came before, transformed, transmuted, like straw into gold. I realize that gold might not be what others would use to describe my life, but it feels right to me because I feel so blessed, and at peace, with such a deep sense of gratitude. Coming through all that came before, and being alive at 59 was not something I was sure of at 39, Life isn’t perfect, I feel afraid, I still struggle with my weight, I take my medication to function, but I am here, and it is good.
I looked down at my funny blue shoes. And socks. And my navy blue t-shirty sort of dress, with little pugs running about, and the sky raining leaves so loud you could hear them falling, and the blustery cold wind whipping around, and I felt such joy. I am here, awkward, off-kilter, a little uncertain, still kind of shy, but living each day as fully as I can, going moment by moment, step by step, learning to love myself a little more each day, and mindfully catching myself when I fall, and getting back up every time. Mindfulness is the practice that sees me through, more than anything else it is my port in the storm, the place where I am safe, the bedrock of truth. I am on solid ground and I keep moving forward in the knowledge that I never need to go any further than this, this single moment. The rest will take care of itself.